Friday, December 21, 2007

Bad Christmas Gifts, Part 1: Not Giving Them

Published 11.24.07 at

Have you ever received a Christmas gift you didn’t want? Idiot mittens from grandma. A subscription to the deodorant-of-the-month club. Membership to the “We Fix Fat People” gym and spa. Yes, we’ve all received bad gifts.

But do you remember what it felt like? Burdened. Insulted. Irritated. Disturbed. All are candidates. Naturally, however, you smiled and said, “Thank You” while you secretly considered how to dispose of the new curse you’d acquired. And, of course, if someone gives you a bad gift once, next year’s gift is preambled with a nice holiday dose of anxiety to boot.

So if that’s how you felt when receiving a bad gift, why would you want to risk being such an anti-blessing to someone else? If you love them, you surely wouldn’t. We all want to be the sort of person who gives the gifts people can’t wait to open and are thrilled to receive. If so, why does this process go so wrong with such regularity?

1. We live in America.

In the United States of America, the vast majority of us have enough money to buy pretty much anything we want. If I want a shirt, I buy it for myself. If I want a DVD player, I buy it for myself. And if I want a new CD, I buy it for myself. In short, anything someone might give me that I would actually want, I already own. So in buying a gift for me, someone should ask himself a simple question: “Why doesn’t he already have it?” There are three possibilities.

One, I’ve never thought of it. This is obviously a good reason to buy it for me, and quickly, before I think of it myself. Two, I can’t afford it or don’t think it’s worth the price. This may seem like a fine reason, but such gifts then burden me with the obligation to be equally wasteful on you in return. That’s rarely a blessing. But the third and primary reason a gift recipient doesn’t already have this something is pretty obvious: he doesn’t actually want it. Clearly, such gifts really aren’t. But wait, there’s more.

2. Some people are picky.

I can’t buy gifts for my wife. Not because I’m bad at buying gifts, but because she is extremely particular. The good news is she doesn’t care whether I buy a gift for her. She is unusual in that she is perfectly happy for me to tell her to go buy what she wants for herself, and I get the credit for that. Other people have the unfortunate disease of being picky and also desiring gifts. I’d love to tell you that I have a solution for such people, but I don’t. However, I do have a thought.

Picky people are usually unhappy people, and unhappy people are usually not worth trying to please. So, one viable option is to simply not get a gift for this person and see what happens. “Why didn’t you get me anything this year” can easily be answered with an honest, “Because nothing I ever buy satisfies you, and I’d rather save my money and spare you the grief of receiving what you don’t want.” Isn’t honesty liberating?

3. The nature of gifts escapes many people.

These two problems make things harder, sure. However, the biggest problem with giving gifts has nothing to do with either of these difficulties. The real hang-up is that people don’t understand what a gift is. A gift is a tangible demonstration of your love for someone.

Bad gifts are a burden precisely because they show your lack of love for the recipient. The prerequisite of love is knowledge. You cannot love whom you do not know. Thus, a gift shows love when it demonstrates a real knowledge of who someone is and what he desires. Bad gifts are evidence of a bad relationship because they demonstrate that you do not know enough about this person to be capable of giving a good gift.

Thus, an unwanted gift is a double failure. First you’ve burdened the recipient with something he wants about as much as more telemarketing calls. Second, you’ve actually insulted him by saying that he isn’t important enough for you to really know who he is. This may sound harsh, but it’s the truth that few people are willing to tell bad gift-givers. Unless the giver is a child who cannot do better, it’s not cute when someone gives a bad gift. It’s obnoxious.

Let me be clear, the reason I’m writing this is so that people will swallow some pride and actually accomplish their (hopeful) purpose in buying Christmas gifts: to bless the recipient. Just think of how awful the theological implications are in celebrating the Perfect Gift from God by giving someone a gift he neither wants nor needs. But just as a bad gift wounds a relationship, a good gift solidifies it. And, because I want people to have good relationships, I want people to learn how to be more like God and give great Christmas gifts.

4. But isn’t it the thought that counts?

There is one final myth that needs direct dispelling. The thought does not count. The gift counts. And I’ll tell you why this phrase disgusts me. When do we say it? We say, “It’s the thought that counts,” precisely when the gift is terrible. But if the gift is terrible, that means that the thought wasn’t really so great either. It takes a lot of thought to give a good gift. It takes only a little thought to give a terrible one. So, a bad gift is actually evidence that you don’t care enough about the person to bother taking the time to have a quality thought about what would make a good gift for him. Thus, rather than the thought being the thing that counts, it’s the lack of thought that winds up counting.

By the way, this is why it’s so tacky to ask people what they want to be given. If you have to ask, you’re admitting you don’t know them well enough to be giving them a gift in the first place. It’s sort of like saying, “Gee, I really want to pretend that we have a strong relationship and I want to earn false affection from you, so can you tell me who you are and I’ll just act like I already knew?” Now, granted, it’s better to ask and get it right than to not ask and get it wrong. But the real challenge is to not ask and get it right. And if you can’t get it right without asking, maybe you shouldn’t be buying gifts for this person in the first place. Just maybe.

5. Categories of bad gifts

To illustrate some of the pitfalls, here are my six categories for bad gifts:

The insult gift, which criticizes rather than edifying the person. “Here’s your Thigh-Master video and a subscription to Escaping Codependency Magazine, hon.”
The selfish gift, which shows you can’t distinguish between what you like and what others like. “Here’s your organic lotions that I’m really into all of a sudden.”
The narcissistic gift, which serves your ego, not his needs. “Here’s your own framed portrait of me.”
The gift from me to you for me, which looks like a gift, but it’s really selfish. “Here’s that uncomfortable lingerie I know you hate to wear for me, dear.”
The burden gift, which is the gift that keeps on giving you problems like stealing your time or space. “Here’s your own copy of War and Peace. Let’s talk about it when we have lunch next week.”
The almost good but really bad gift, which shows you know a little about someone but haven’t really taken the time to realize that a person’s interests are actually a dangerous place for gifts precisely because you probably don’t know enough about the field of interest to gift well in it. “Here, Dr. Schwartz, I thought you could use this copy of “Basic Anatomy for Dummies” in your neurosurgical practice.”

6. Being a good gift-giver

Okay, sarcastic humor and acerbic comments aside, how do you give good gifts? It’s simple, but it’s not simple. Be humble, and do your homework. That’s it. You have to realize that there is no formula because every relationship and every person is different. The idea of giving gifts is to put aside every desire you have other than the one to bless someone. Then you just learn whatever you have to learn about this other person so that you can buy (or make) a really good gift.

In fact, one of the most powerful gifts is a gift that you do not even agree with and the other person knows this because this is a statement of great love. “I love you more than I love myself, and to prove it I’ll submit my own desires to my love of you and give you what you will appreciate.”

Now go do the work necessary to give a gift so precious that the recipient would never even think of having to say something ridiculous like, “Oh, well, it’s the thought that counts,” because the thought really did count. If this column means you need to go make some returns, so be it. There are still a few days until Christmas. And look for my next article on what to do when you get a bad gift. A hint: the answer is not to politely say, “Thank you.”

Bad Christmas Gifts, Part 2: What To Do When You Get Them

Published under a different title 12.24.08 at

In my previous column on bad Christmas gifts, I explained why we give bad gifts and how to avoid doing so. The main point of that column was that bad gifts are a burden because they fail to show real love. But what should we do when someone loves us this badly? The most habitual response is to say that we should be polite, smile, and say, “Thank you.” The most habitual response is wrong. Why? Because lying is a sin.

“But being polite is not a sin.” That’s a discussion worthy of it’s own attention. Fortunately for this column, acting pleased in the reception of a bad Christmas gift is not a form of politeness. Being polite is what we are supposed to do to strangers and people we don’t know well enough to be fully honest with. Such people are not usually giving us Christmas gifts, and, if they do, that’s a different case. I am talking about bad gifts from friends and family, people with whom we have a relationship, or are supposed to.

“Still, why is lying and acting grateful not acceptable? Isn’t it the thought that counts?” As I explained in the previous column, no. But the danger of lying is already well-known to anyone who’s tried this approach: it only makes things worse. I once had a good friend give me a book as a gift. I added it to the 3,000+ other books I own and forgot all about it…until he asked me a few months later if I had enjoyed it. I told him I hadn’t read it yet, and I distorted reality slightly by saying I intended to do so. Another few months passed, and he inquired again. Now I had to make a choice, either continue to lie and act as if I intended to read this book as soon as I could make the time or else tell him the truth.

And that’s the point, bad gifts accepted gratefully only cause further problems. Your friends visit and inquire if something went wrong with the lava lamp you’ve been storing in the garage sale pile. You get asked why you never wear that hand knit green and orange sweater you acted so glad to get from your grandmother. Or perhaps your realtor notices that your skin tone doesn’t seem to be responding to the Siberian anchovy cleansing cream he sent you.

Maybe you lie. Maybe you have to invent subsequent outrageous lies to cover over the first. But the worst part of lying is the awful thing that happens when you do it well: you receive another bad gift next year from the person who thinks he’s doing you a blessing. Alternately, at some point the deception becomes so fraudulent that you rightly recognize it as being incompatible with the honesty that’s supposed to be the cornerstone of any non-pathological relationship. So you tell the truth later, which turns out to be messier than if you’d done it earlier, before the scope of the fraud was so extensive.

Let me come at this a different way. When you give a gift, do you want it to be a blessing to the other person? Of course you do. If it isn’t one, do you want to continue falsely thinking you’ve succeeded while the person secretly deceives you and harbors resentment over having to do so because of your bad gift? Surely not. Unless you’re so selfish as a “giver” that you’re really doing it only to please yourself and you don’t really care about whether they are pleased.

When I give someone a gift, I make sure it’s going to be something the recipient wants. But even so, I will make it as easy for him to tell me it isn’t as I possibly can. “Here’s the receipt. If you want to exchange it. I won’t be offended at all. Please, if it isn’t what you really want, get something you’ll enjoy. I want to bless you, not be a problem, and I’d be truly upset if you didn’t exchange it.” Precisely because I know that bad gifts are an awful moral burden, I want to eliminate that possibility in giving something. But, of course, we all know the paradox. People who give gifts so selflessly are also the same people who give good gifts. It’s the bad gift-giver who makes honesty so challenging.

But honesty is your only viable option. Bad gifts are immoral, and just as a child needs guidance when he does something foolish, bad gift-givers need honest feedback if they are ever going to learn to do better. Not because it’s a way of punishing them, but because we care about them and about our relationship to them. But I get ahead of myself. You’re probably still balking on the idea of objecting to a gift in the first place. Allow me to persuade you with some examples.

I’m a Christian man. Imagine someone were to buy me a subscription to Hustler and a VIP pass to a local strip club. Should I smile and say, “Thank you?” What if he gave me a couple of ounces of cocaine? Perhaps a copy of the Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce? What if someone bought my 3½ year-old son a hunting knife? What if someone gave my Muslim friend a one-year subscription to the pork-of-the-month club or my Mormon friend a copy of “Polygamy for Beginners?” Now, obviously, these are ridiculous and even sometimes evil gifts. But that’s the point. Some gifts are so inappropriate that being polite is clearly wrong.

If my son comes to me one morning with a dripping paintbrush in his hand and says he decided to give me the gift of painting my car for me, he would be in deep trouble, not in deep affection. If someone decided to “clean up” my desk and papers “as a favor,” this act would be such an affront that to act grateful would be nearly as inappropriate as the act itself. And that’s the point. When a gift is really bad, it demands an honest response. So why don’t we react honestly when it’s only moderately bad? The real answer here is painful to admit.

It’s because we’re selfish.

Bad gift-givers are selfish (see my other article), and polite bad-gift receivers are also selfish. It’s simply easier to avoid the conflict honesty would cause. It’s easier to make jokes about the person to a sympathetic spouse than to tell him the truth to his face. So we take the easy way out and deceive ourselves into thinking that we’ve done something loving. It’s almost perfectly symmetrical with the immorality done by the person who gave the bad gift. Both parties are selfish, and both parties think they are behaving lovingly. Now isn’t that ironic?

But there’s more wrong here than first meets the eye. We lie to them with our gratitude, but we lie to ourselves about our motives. We say that being polite is the loving thing to do for the other person, but we are equally motivated by the desire to protect our own reputation. See, you worry people will think less of you if you complain about a gift, so you do whatever is necessary to keep this fear from happening. Instead of voicing your ingratitude, which you fear will make you look mean, you lie and seem like a perfectly decent person. Thus, what seems like selfless etiquette actually turns out to be a very deceptive maneuver to prevent yourself from being judged for who you really are. What did the Bard say about webs and deceptions?

Here’s further irony. We would never feel such a burden in dealing with our enemies. Although I admit it’s a bit weird to imagine, consider how you would respond if someone you despised gave you a bad gift. Likely you would feel no compunction about telling this person the truth, and rudely. Why? Because you care neither about this person’s feelings nor about his image of you. But isn’t there something askew in a moral system where we only feel at liberty to be honest with those we do not love? I suspect our notions of love and truth need revising.

There is an explanation: we’re bad at telling the truth effectively. The reason for rules of politeness (though I repeat this isn’t about being polite) is because it’s easier to not mess them up. Honesty is really difficult. Nonetheless, there’s enough light at the end of the tunnel to make it worth trying. A bad gift is a kind of rupture in a relationship. It shows lack of knowledge and, therefore, lack of love. But any rupture is also an opportunity.

Bad gifts create a sort of crisis, and the relationship can’t stay where it is. It must either become stronger or weaker, and ignoring the breach can only make it weaker. Confronting it runs the risk of total ruination, but it also runs the risk of deeper intimacy. So you have to ask yourself a very simple question: Would you rather keep such relationships forever trivial by protecting them from the stress that might break them, or would you rather risk losing them in the hope that you might gain real ones in exchange? Every meaningful relationship I have is so because it survived one or more crises of honesty. The only way to get respect and real love is to tell people the truth. So here’s how to do so successfully.

The three keys to effective confrontation

1. Apologize in advance. “I’m sorry, John.”

2. Admit the obvious. “I have something really awful to say to you, and I’m genuinely afraid that it’s going to hurt your feelings or make you mad and ruin our friendship. I’m really scared right now because you mean a lot to me and I don’t want to lose that. ”

3. Get permission. “So would you rather have me tell you the truth or keep it hidden from you?”

Certainly, the frenzy of Christmas morning may not be the correct time for such a confrontation. This you must decide for yourself. The Bible wisely teaches that we should confront people and resolve our issues with them privately, in part because defensive anger is a more likely result in public encounters. But some form of honest confrontation is the only loving way to proceed, and the benefits should by now be clear.

You’ve taken a breached relationship and tried to heal it. You’ve dealt with the giver honorably, as a loved one who deserves your honesty. You are likely helping that person to become a better gift-giver to you and others in the future, which should make everyone a lot happier. And you’ve cleared your conscience against the need to indulge in subsequent deceptions. But there’s one more benefit to this approach. When people know you react honestly, they know your expressed joy at a gift is real. Precisely because my friends know I’m honest, they also need never second-guess my reactions. I yield no false positives. And as a symbolic reinforcement of this very concept, my honesty about the need to be honest is my possibly unwelcome Christmas gift to you. I sincerely hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Religious Test Oath?

Published 12.20.07 under a different title at

Charles Krauthammer writes, “The Constitutional injunction against religious tests is meant to make citizens understand that such tests are profoundly un-American.” Well, Chuck, I’m growing tired of you and others telling me what I may or may not consider in my voting decision.

I care about a candidate’s religion. It’s not the only thing I care about, but, still, I care about it. And I’m about fed up with people telling me I’m a bigot and un-American because I happen to have a different idea of what matters in my decision for whom to vote than they do. How about this: I won’t say you’re un-American for ignoring religion if you stop saying I’m un-American for considering it.

I care that Mike Huckabee is an ordained Baptist. I happen to think Baptists are wrong about a lot, but I still care that he is. I care that Hillary Clinton is a full-fledged non-Wesleyan United Methodist. That tells me a lot about her. I care that Barack Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ. I care that Rudy Giuliani is a Catholic, mostly because the fact that he is so disconnected from the staunch doctrines of his own faith tells me a lot about him. Yes, he is rebellious, but he’s also independently stubborn like a mule. Rudy would never have had to give the JFK speech because it would be preposterous to think he cares what the Pope thinks about his political views.

And, as it happens, I care that Mitt Romney is a Mormon.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I could still vote for him. Though I’m a non-denominational Evangelical Christian (since you asked), I’m not of the camp who thinks that Latter Day Saints are members of some Satanic cult in league with the FreeMasons and the Bilderbergers.

But what if I thought they were?

If I did in fact believe that a candidate’s religion were evil, would you really be so audacious as to tell me that I’m not allowed to consider that when I enter the voting booth? For all the conservative lip-service given to protecting religion from government, that sure sounds to me like you’re saying I’m not allowed to bring my religious views to the ballot box with me.

I would not vote for a Scientologist. They make good movies, especially when John Woo is directing, but I don’t want them running NASA. I would not vote for a Christian Scientist. I love their newspaper, but I don’t want them overseeing the FDA. I would not vote for a Muslim. At this moment in world history, I’m having a hard time really believing that Islam is compatible with the notions of freedom from government coercion that we cherish in this country. Most Muslims and I agree deeply about private morality, but I don’t share their belief that God only cares what the society looks like and not whether freedom is allowed as part of the process of getting there. And perhaps most obviously, I don’t want to vote for an atheist. I was one, and I am no longer. I do not want to deliberately put someone in the White House (or any other marble hall) who does not consider himself accountable to any god at all.

Allow me to clarify myself slightly. By saying, “I would not vote for” them, I’m actually saying I would prefer not to have to. This is not a strict pass/fail grading system. These are merely strong considerations for me because they pertain to character and judgment, and other factors could certainly counterbalance them. Still, these are strong preferences.

So do these views make me a bigot? If so, then bigot I am, but I’m hard pressed to draw the further hasty generalization that all bigotry is bad. My Webster’s says that a bigot is someone “obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion.” That sounds like an apt description of Martin Luther, Saint Paul, any Pope you name, and even my Savior, quite frankly. It certainly doesn’t mean a racist, which is the similarity implied by the tone of the word use.

Also, lest you mis-stereotype me, I’m probably the most tolerant and open-minded Evangelical you’ll meet in your life. I’ll talk with anyone. I’ll be friends with anyone. And I don’t feel threatened by a wildly pluralistic society such as we enjoy in America.

But that’s not the point. When I go into a voting booth, I’m not picking a friend or a conversation partner. I’m picking a leader. I want leaders that I would trust my money and my children with….since I sort of am. And that means that I consider a person’s religious views. Because religion matters, and it matters to me. Why is that so wrong?

“But, Andrew, don’t you know that the Constitution prohibits a religious test for elected office in the United States?” Of course I do. But do you realize that there is a vast difference between officially requiring such a test and me privately considering the results of such a test? You seem to think that simply because it is illegal to require a religious test for office that it should also be illegal to consider a candidate’s religion. Should it also be illegal to ask about it or for him to describe it to us?

“Well, I didn’t say these things should be illegal. I merely meant that you’re being un-American and neglecting the great principles of the Constitution by using them yourself.” Really? Are you sure that you want to take a position which states there is no difference at all between what we do officially through the Constitutional and what we do in our own private judgment?

Swearing is protected speech. Does this mean I’m un-American if I consider a candidate’s predilection to profanity in my vote? Blasphemy is protected speech. May I not consider a candidate’s irreverent references to God in my vote? Pornography is protected press. May I not consider whether someone is a pornographer or porn consumer in my vote? The Constitution only requires that someone be 35 to be President. May I not, therefore, consider youth or elderliness as a factor in my vote?

As I understand democracy, I am free to vote how I think best. Perhaps I’ll vote based on age. Perhaps I’ll vote based on gender. Perhaps I’ll vote based on policies, past record, education, party affiliation, or height. Some of these factors are better than others to consider, but just because I agree that we should not have a State religion, this doesn’t mean I should become religion-blind in my judgments about leadership capacity. Precisely because I believe religion (or even its lack) is central to who a person is, I not only will consider it, but I expect lots of other people to consider it as well. The ones who ignore it can only achieve consistency in their views by believing that religion can and should be walled off from every important area of a man’s life. I’m probably more troubled by such aberrant theology than I am by that of the non-believer. They would have us believe that God exists but shouldn’t matter. Even the atheist is not so foolish.

I’ve no doubt that this column will be misunderstood by many. They will think this is an attack on Mitt Romney and Mormons more generally. They’ll probably accuse me of opening the door for anti-Semitism. And I’m sure they’ll be saying that I want to make every religion other than mine illegal.

They will be wrong.

Let me repeat. I can easily see myself voting for Mitt Romney. In fact, I spend a fair amount of time convincing those who object to his Mormonism that they should not. Not because religion doesn’t matter, but because they’re wrong in thinking this particular religion is wrong enough to disqualify him. I know too many Mormons to be overly worried about a Mormon President, even though I also have many questions about this very secretive faith.

If I do vote for Mitt, I would be doing so in part precisely because of his commitment to religion, even one other than my own. But that’s the point. I am considering his religion in my decision, and I am very frustrated by hearing so many conservatives tell me and others who disagree with me in my assessment of Mormonism that we are all a bunch of unpatriotic bigots because we happen to think that what a man believes and practices with regard to God is important stuff.

Truth be told, your bigotry on this point against me is at least as distasteful as my bigotry in considering religion, if either is bigotry at all.